Welcome back to Beyond the Docket! We had the opportunity to interview Nick Barnhorst, who is an attorney working in house at Fresh, Inc. We talk about Nick's transition from the law firm life to working in-house, INTA 2018, and advice for outside counsel.
Tell us a bit about what you do for Fresh.
I joined Fresh in 2015 as its first in-house lawyer, so there’s been a lot of learning on the job—including learning about the job. So in addition to getting to know the teams and the business and a new industry, I’m still spending some time figuring out what really makes sense for my role and how it will evolve. Currently, I devote about one-third of my time to tending to our global intellectual property matters, and probably about another third on commercial agreements and general corporate upkeep. The rest is kind of a “whatever walks in the door that day” hodge-podge.
What was the transition from working in a law firm to in-house like?
I went from a role as a litigation associate at a biggish general practice firm, to a three-lawyer IP boutique (the other two lawyers were my mother and sister), and then to my first in-house position at Sharp Electronics. No one of those situations is much like the other from a cultural perspective, but you bring your toolkit and your skill set and you find that the practicing of law is not all that different no matter where you go. The hardest thing for a lot of lawyers is moving from private practice, where you’re the revenue generator and the star of the show, to a service-oriented, supporting role where your ultimate goal is to make sure the business does well.
What advice would you give to people who want to go in-house?
The most frequently shared advice for lawyers looking to land in-house roles is to first become good at something, or a lot of things, in private practice. I think that’s good advice: there’s a ton you can learn at a firm in a short period of time that will be invaluable in a future in-house role. But there’s another layer that is important too, which is that you have the right reasons for wanting to go in-house. For me, the best part of practicing law—whether in-house or in a firm—is that you get to work on something different, and tackle a new challenge, every day. The appeal of an in-house role is that you get to do that as part of a team and for a group of co-workers, rather than for a rotating cast of (often faceless) outside clients. You may not always love all of your teammates—and there will certainly be times when they don’t love you—but knowing you all are driving towards the same goal of helping the business achieve success works as a great motivator. That’s not the only reason to go in-house. Some fall in love with a particular industry, or a particular client or company, but there needs to be something that’s a strong pull to an in-house role. If it’s all push out of a law firm, you’re probably going to end up unhappy in your in-house position as well.
What was your greatest challenge while practicing at a law firm? Greatest challenge in-house?
The pithy answer about the challenge of working at a firm can be summed up in two words: Time Sheets! The more complex and honest answer is that it’s hard as an outside lawyer to see the tangible results of your work, even for most litigators. Your advice to clients—which is often, appropriately, on the conservative side—can feel like it goes off into the ether while you move on to the next task. When you’re embedded in the business, you’re constantly refining and tweaking your advice to find an appropriate risk tolerance that can help your company achieve its goals. That’s the daily struggle, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of working in-house because you get to see those results tangibly in the success of the business, either immediately or over time.
What advice would you provide to outside counsel on how best to serve in-house IP counsel?
Listen. Ask questions and listen. Lawyers love talking, but outside counsel in all areas can be much more effective partners if they’re listening to their in-house clients and learning what the real needs of the organization are.
This year you are planning on going to INTA; how would you recommend in-house counsel new to the conference prepare for the annual INTA meeting?
Bring a lot of business cards. It’s the only place I go these days where the business card is still valuable—it’s a form of currency, and you’ll feel naked without them. Also, don’t be shy. One of the nice things about being in-house is that other lawyers don’t think you’re pitching them, so there’s a barrier that tends to be broken down already. Doubly so if you’re talking with another inside lawyer.
What is your in-house technology stack? Do you use Slack? Practice management software? Docketing software?
We’ve got a cloud-based contract management system that I won’t name, in part because you probably can’t print most of the things I’d want to say about it. We recently migrated our email and other systems to Office365, which has a lot of very useful sharing and communication tools, many of which are probably under-utilized. Slack is not something that I can see benefitting my practice. And, of course, Alt Legal, which we’ve been using for about a year now with great results.
What is your biggest tech pain point right now? If you could have a tech company solve any problem facing in-house counsel, what would you have them build?
Our contract volume is not overwhelming, but reviewing routine and repetitive agreements (hotels, event caterers, etc.) is ripe for automation. And then storing and maintaining those electronically in a system that makes retrieval and reference less of a labor—that’s what I’d really like to see.
If you could create any legal-focused AI technology, what would it be and why?
I don’t know that I’ve mastered regular intelligence near well enough to opine on artificial intelligence. So when the robots come for our jobs, I will be ill-prepared. That being said, in certain industries and for certain types of deals, it’s clear that you see many of the same issues, and language for addressing those issues, pop up in agreement after agreement. I’m aware that there are some software solutions that are auto-generating contracts based on deal terms, and I don’t have the depth of experience with those to comment on how effective they are. But it does seem that an AI-driven tool, given the correct parameters by a human, ought to be able to analyze [a contract], e.g., a 100-page retail lease, and tell you what the document really says and what tricky points are lurking in the legalese.